ISRO: Time for Change of leadership

Lalit Shastri

We have a situation where a top post was degraded and instead of a senior officer at the Additional Secretary level holding fort as Financial Advisor in DoS and ISRO, an officer at the Joint Secretary level was posted there. It is learnt that even the present Joint Secretary and FA, Anoop Shrivastava, an Indian Defence Accounts Service officer, has sought and got premature repatriation as he was unable to work with the present ISRO leadership.

ISRO has been in news and in sharp focus in recent months, especially due to the failure of Lander Vikram to softland on the lunar surface on 7 September this year.

If ISRO had succeeded in achieving this goal, India would have become the fourth country to make a soft landing on the Moon’s surface.

Notwithstanding the end result, what is most unfortunate is that ISRO has become a target of criticism and ridicule more due to the ISRO chairman’s controversial remarks and the public stance of ISRO on the fate of Lander Vikram.

ISRO was quick in going public and telling the world that there was a hard landing, the Lander had been located and efforts were on to rebuild contact with it

There was total gloom at the ISRO control facility in the early hours of 7 September, when in the presence of the Prime Minister, people glued to their TV sets had watched with bated breath how the Lander trajectory graphically represented on a big screen suddenly went tangent from its linear course and came to a halt moments before the scheduled touchdown. Few hours down the line (8 September), K Sivan, the ISRO Chairman had said that the Vikram lander was located by Chandrayaan-2 and efforts were being made to restore contact.

After some gap of time, it was revealed by NASA, on the basis of the “findings of a Chennai based techy”, that the Moon Lander had crashed and broken up into pieces. This was followed up by ISRO telling the world that there was nothing new in what NASA was highlighting since they had much earlier located the Lander. Question that remains to be answered by ISRO is where ‘s the proof for what they have been claiming. Why no photographs or a video of the Lander’s undocking from the Lunar Orbiter have been made public till now.

Only an objective probe will find answers to the questions regarding Chandrayaan-2 and what led to the Lander’s failure.

There are also many lapses that should make the citizens of India, who fund ISRO’s working, sit up straight. In April 2018 there was an innocuous notice published on the ISRO/Department of Space Website. The notice referred to an application dated 1 July 2016 filed by one Jupiter Satellite India Limited for securing an Indian orbital slot at 104 degrees East longitude to provide Ka-band services for broadband beams covering the Indian mainland and Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The notice was put out by CAISS, the Committee for Administration of the Indian Satellite System. To the uninitiated, the notice made no sense but on delving deep, Newsroom24x7 came to the obvious conclusion that it was the making of another Antrix-Devas.

Process is on to offer Ka-band services without auction: Is it a backdoor deal?

Responding to a specific query in 2018, ISRO had replied that it had only the post of Secretary while other Apex scale posts were approved by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet “as and when required”. The organization ducked the question conveniently as to whether the posts are sanctioned or not. Usually up to the level of Joint Secretary, the power to create posts vests in the Finance Minister. Above that it is the Union Cabinet that decides. In the Merit Promotion scheme practiced by Department of Space, and Department of Atomic Energy, there is a cap at the level of Director or at the Jt Secretary level. But beyond that, successive Chairmen have created and operated posts with impunity. In fact in every proposal sent by the Department of Space to the DoPT in this regard, on the basis of peer review done by secretary Atomic Energy and Chairman ISRO, the first line has always conveyed the lie that the Department of Space has “two sanctioned Posts in the Apex Scale”. Its at the whims of these top functionaries that the apex scale is awarded to a scientist they wish to see as the next ISRO chairman and in the process, often due to personal biases the meritorious are left out.

Decline of ISRO

Giving a go-bye to quality assurance, to increase launch frequency appears to be the main reason why Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO’s) GSAT-6A mission ended in failure. According to ISRO insiders, the duration of pre-shipment checks was being cut short only to increase launch frequency as every chairman was after glory. ISRO is collectively guilty and the top man more so.

Two days after India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-F08) launched GSAT-6A Satellite into Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO) on 29 March 2018, the authorities confirmed they had lost contact with the powerful communications satellite designed to improve communication for Defence forces.

Losing contact with GSAT-6A puts ISRO authorities in dock

The successful launching of a series of satellites in India’s ambitious navigation satellites system (NavIC) by ISRO notwithstanding, those running and administering India’s space programme owe an explanation to the nation and they will have to tell the people of this country why there has been so much delay in making the desi GPS a reality.

Between 2009 and 2019 India has spent over Rs. 4000 crore on a series of navigation satellites (NavIC). One failed and a replacement had a launch failure. These satellites have a short life span. The much touted desi GPS has nothing on the ground – neither in terms of civil or military applications and use. The crux of the problem is that ISRO went full steam ahead and started launching the satellites in the Indian navigation system in quick succession, without bothering to ensure the chipsets required for ground support also developed simultaneously to roll out the services that could be availed on mobile handsets just like the United States’ Global Positioning System (GPS) and Russia’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) are fully operational GNSSs, with China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS) and the European Union’s Galileo. This is more merely a lapse but has led to criminal waste of public money. Those responsible will have to be identified and held accountable.

Desi GPS: Space Application Centre lacks priority at great cost to the nation

The Chairman ISRO is also Secretary Department of Space. The main objective of DoS is to harness space technology for national development, while pursuing space science research and planetary exploration. Its Mission is to Design and develop launch vehicles and related technologies for providing access to space; design and develop satellites and related technologies for earth observation, communication, navigation, meteorology and space science; run the Indian National Satellite (INSAT) programme for meeting telecommunication, television broadcasting and developmental applications; spearhead the Indian Remote Sensing Satellite (IRS) programme for management of natural resources and monitoring of environment using space based imagery; provide Space based Applications for Societal development; and carry forward Research and Development in space science and planetary exploration.

The lofty goals notwithstanding, we have a situation where a top post was degraded and instead of a senior officer at the Additional Secretary level holding fort as Financial Advisor in DoS and ISRO, an officer at the Joint Secretary level was posted there. It is learnt that even the present Joint Secretary and FA (27 November 2017 onward), Anoop Srivastava, an Indian Defence Accounts Service officer, has sought and got premature repatriation as he was unable to work with the present ISRO leadership.

Postscript: There is simmering discontent in ISRO. The Prime Minister must intervene to stem the rot and prevent a world class organisation from declining.

One comment

  1. Many many thanks for this article Sir. As an Indian, my humble request to the Hon’ble Prime minister to take immediate positive action to revive the momentum gained by TEAM ISRO before chandrayaan – 2 failure.


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